The Northern Lights are recognized as one of the most important and beautiful natural attractions of the Arctic Circle. Lighting up the night sky in a panoply of colors, the Northern Lights have been observed by humans for generations and have become the basis of many myths and legends. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, tourists from around the world can now partake in the Northern Lights by traveling to the Arctic every year.
Seeing the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you won’t forget. Here’s how to see the Northern Lights.
How to See the Northern Lights
The most important thing you need in order to see the Northern Lights is to be in a part of the world where they occur. As a general rule, auroras only occur in the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, and while they have been observed in other parts of the globe, these occurrences are rare and usually the result of exceptionally powerful solar storms. The last major aurora recorded outside of the Arctic and Antarctic regions was the Carrington Event of 1859, which caused auroras to be seen in New York City, Tokyo, and other southerly locales.
The reason why auroras only occur in the polar regions of the Earth is due to the shape of the magnetosphere, the protective barrier that shields the planet from interstellar radiation. Auroras are caused by solar wind, the scientific term for the streams of particles given off by the sun at regular intervals. Solar wind contains radiation and is deadly to life, and the magnetosphere protects Earth by deflecting solar wind before it can reach the surface.
Much of the magnetosphere is located in outer space, far away from the planet. However, because the magnetosphere is generated by the Earth’s magnetic field, it converges with the atmosphere at the North and South Poles, where the magnetic field originates. When solar wind enters the atmosphere at these points, it causes a chemical reaction that is visible as the Northern Lights. Auroras cannot be seen at other points of the globe because not enough solar wind can impact the atmosphere in those areas to generate them.
Seeing an aurora not only requires you to be in the Arctic or Antarctic regions; it also requires nightfall, because the sun’s light prevents auroras from being seen during the day. This makes winter the ideal time to witness auroras. The tilt of the Earth’s axis means that the Arctic and Antarctic regions experience dramatic shifts in day length throughout the year; summers feature near-constant daylight with little to no darkness, while winters are long and dark with little sunlight. This means that during the winter, the sheer amounts of darkness increase the chances of seeing an aurora dramatically.
In addition to the time of year, you should also venture out to see auroras during the critical hours of 9:30 pm to 1am. This is the period when the night sky is darkest, making it more likely that auroras will form. This rule is not set in stone; auroras have been observed as early as 4pm and as late as 6am. However, the window of 9:30 pm to 1am is the period in which auroras are most likely to be seen.
Another consideration when viewing auroras is weather. Auroras cannot be seen if the sky is blanketed by clouds due to the fact that auroras occur high up in the sky and clouds obscure them. Many aurora viewing locations, such as the city of Tromsø, Norway, have heavy cloud cover during certain parts of the winter, making aurora sightings impossible. Research weather patterns in the area where you’re planning to go to ensure you’ll have clear skies for your trip.
Finally, you should ensure that you have what you need to be comfortable in the winter due to the extreme temperatures and snowfall in the Arctic during those months. Bring a thick coat and multi-layered clothing, as well as a hat, gloves, and a scarf. You may also want to bring a hot drink such as cocoa or coffee to enjoy while you watch the night sky come ablaze.
Viewing the Northern Lights does not require any special equipment, such as telescopes; you can see them just fine with your naked eyes. While there are some spectrums of light, such as infrared and ultraviolet, that can only be seen with special monitoring equipment, normal auroras are easily viewed from the ground without any machines or other tools. If you are planning to take pictures, however, keep in mind that many smartphones and standard cameras do not function properly in extremely cold temperatures.
The Northern Lights are one of the most beautiful sights a person can witness. While they are generally only viewable in the polar regions of the world, if you can manage to travel there, you won’t need any special equipment or anything beyond what you need to stay warm during the winter. If you are curious about the Northern Lights, book a tour and prepare for an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life.